Sometime or the other, you must have been to a forest. At least, most of us have. Speaking of me, spending time in a forest, amidst the splendid trees, is one of the most refreshing things ever. One way or the other, we tend to romanticize the idea of being in a forest. Some, on the contrary, have made it their life’s aim to destroy forests.
Now, does either of the parties realize that immense complexities underlie the otherwise peaceful forest? Trees are not just standing there with their feet on the ground. There’s a lot more to a forest than we, as humans, can perceive.
In any given forest, trees are talking to each other, protecting one another and even waging wars. The old, mother trees feed their young ones. They also warn others when they sense any danger. Just like humans, young trees often make foolish mistakes with regard to leaf shedding. Sometimes, they also drink too much and eventually die as a result. The heirs wait for the elders to die out, so they can have complete access to sunlight.
All the drama of the forest unfolds at such a slow speed that it seems still to the normal human eye. But it is not so for tree whisperers like Peter Wohlleben from Germany and Suzanne Simrad from British Columbia. These two scientists researched independently in forests thousands of kms apart. Yet, they arrived at similar conclusions with regard to the complex inner lives of the trees.
The Community of Trees
Wohlleben manages a forest reserve in the tiny German village of Hümmel. Among many other things, he observed that pairs of Beech trees grow side by side and support each other in getting sunlight. Just like soul friends, their roots are intertwined and they literally cannot live without one another. Although a single Beech tree may live over 4000 years, the death of any one of the companions eventually leads to the death of the other.
Similarly, inspired by the discovery that carbon is transmitted between two roots of pine seedlings, Suzanne went on to conduct self-funded research in the Canadian forests. Through her experiments, she found that Fir trees sent carbon to Birch trees when they had shed all their leaves in winter. In its turn, the Birch tree helped the Fir with carbon, when the latter was shaded.
Both Suzanne and Wohlleben have shown that underneath the ground is a complex network of biological routes which the trees are using to interact with one another. This dense network has come to be known as the mycelial network.
Apart from other hormones, enzymes, and chemicals, trees communicate with the help of certain fungi. These fungi are found to grow among the roots, underneath the ground.
However, this underground network is not outside of capitalism. Shocked? Don’t be. In return of their service as messengers, the fungi charge the host trees with a fee of 30% of the glucose that is produced during photosynthesis.
Trees not only share nutrients with one another but also distress signals in times of danger. They pass information about diseases and even pest attacks.
Moreover, in any forest community, the mother trees are connected to their saplings. Due to the canopy, the shorter saplings get very little or no sunlight and cannot photosynthesize properly. The mother trees feed these saplings with sugar and help them grow.
That’s not all. In an astonishing display of companionship, a felled tree is kept alive by the nearby trees. They pump sugar into the dead tree through their networking and this keeps it alive within.
Challenging Darwinian Notion
These recent findings are in striking opposition to the notions of Darwinian evolution. Contrary to the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’, these findings have shown us that trees indeed support each other. These supportive interactions strengthen the forest community as a whole. Without the support of the holistic community, it’s quite difficult for a tree to survive. Admittedly, there is more companionship than competition among the trees in a forest.
Listening To the Trees
By now, I sincerely hope that you recognize that trees are more ‘alive’ than you might have thought. Just imagine your arm being cut off and how that would affect you as a single organism. If you can imagine the pain it would cause and the havoc it would bring on to your body, you already know why you shouldn’t cut down trees.
You may say that sometimes it’s imperative to cut trees. Unfortunately, that’s true indeed. Even then, take care not to cut down the mother trees. They are the storehouse of the forest’s collective wisdom. Let them be and the forest will heal itself.
If you wish to further learn the language of the trees, spend some time amidst the forest community. It’ll teach you all that you need to learn.